HOUSTON -- Several days after her husband's plane vanished last year, Alison Leland and her son, Jarrett, then 3, went to a friend's house to escape.

She wanted a rest from the symptoms of a tragedy-in-the-making -- reporters and TV minicams, well-wishers and doomsayers who'd begun a vigil outside her home. All were waiting for news of her husband, Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), who'd disappeared in a storm en route to an Ethiopian refugee camp on Aug. 7.

Savoring the respite, Leland sat with her friend by the pool and chatted about her just-discovered two-month pregnancy. Then: "My friend's child said, 'Jarrett, your daddy's dead.' And Jarrett got really angry, and said, 'My daddy is not dead, he wouldn't do that!' ... It made me cry; no one had voiced death as a possibility. And here was this 5-year-old, dealing with it as the obvious. Which of course it was."

Alison Leland has been filtering life -- its unimagined twists and startling symmetry -- through children's eyes ever since. Like when her 6-month-old twins, Cameron George and Austin Mickey, stare up at her from their matching cribs, their eyes the same improbable blue as their father's. Or when she catches a wariness in Jarrett's eyes, a withdrawing, when he's around little boys whose daddies still take them for ice cream and a movie.

Or like the morning a year ago when a 5 a.m. phone call from Missouri Rep. Alan Wheat startled her awake to reveal, finally, that the missing plane had been found crashed into a mountainside with no survivors. Still clutching the phone, Leland looked immediately at Jarrett, who lay curled on a pillow beside her.

"He had that sort of peaceful, angelic look of sleeping children, as if he was dreaming without a care," she says. "And I remember thinking I didn't want him to wake up because when he did, his life was going to be completely changed."

Today, Alison Leland, 31, sits in an outdoor cafe at a Houston hotel, looking impossibly cool in the sledgehammer Texas sun. It is a testament to her strength, to her almost unseemly composure, that her own completely changed life since Mickey Leland's death works so well. The Georgetown University Law School graduate has continued in her job as a vice president at Lehman Bros. investment banking firm here, flies across the country accepting honors for her husband, reads Dr. Seuss to Jarrett and helps monitor the oxygen still needed by the prematurely born twins -- all while maintaining a home whose spare lofts and high-tech railings reflect her own precision.

"Actually, I feel pretty good," she says, her rich voice registering the slightest surprise. "Sometimes I wonder if I've skipped a step along the way."

It hasn't hurt that Alison Leland stayed on here in Houston, a town that adored favorite son Mickey Leland for the largeness of his persona, for his commitment to feeding hungry kids the world over. Houston is still home to his mother, Alice Rains, and brother, Gaston. Houstonians, says Mickey's widow, offer her "kind words at the dry cleaner's, the grocery store -- it's like a collective hug," whenever she leaves the house.

It hasn't hurt that she's got a knack for turning a tight spot into a great place to be, for juggling whatever she must.

"Another woman who became a widow at 30 with three children might have rolled over and died -- it's exceptional, how she's taken the cards dealt to her and given herself a royal flush," says Denver attorney Tracy Jenkins, 35, who has known her since they were roommates at Georgetown.

"But this is consistent with Alison... . I remember that first year, when it was clear she wanted to get through exams before she got married. This woman was preparing a wedding for 500 people -- people like Vidal Sassoon and Jack Valenti and members of Congress were coming -- and she planned it while finishing up the toughest year of law school."

It certainly hasn't hurt that Alison Leland has terrific timing. Like last year, when she announced over the phone to her husband -- who was in Washington two days before the fatal trip -- that she was pregnant, even though she'd planned to wait until his return from Africa to tell him in person.

"Later I learned that he told someone at the airport that he wished he didn't have to go -- he wanted to be home because his wife was pregnant."

Or six months later, when she worried about bearing Mickey's much-wanted second child without Mickey. It wasn't enough that Leland's newborn turned out to be two babies eerily reminiscent of the congressman rather than the expected one. Somehow, Alison managed to give birth to them in Atlanta, her favorite city, surrounded by supporters like Jesse Jackson, a dear cousin and two of her very best friends -- all of whom just happened to be in town.

Her timing couldn't have been better on the early autumn day in 1982 when Leland, then a first-year Georgetown law student, dropped in on a party for Andrew Young during the Congressional Black Caucus weekend. Her date, Atlanta entrepreneur Mack Wilbourn, laughed when he introduced her to a sandy-haired 37-year-old Texas congressman known for his way with women.

Said Wilbourn, "I'd better get you out of here fast."

He wasn't fast enough. Two days later, Mickey Leland tracked down Alison Clark's phone number at Georgetown Law School and asked her out. She was barely impressed.

"I worked hard to get into law school," she says now. "And I didn't want to be distracted by some member of Congress with a reputation for being a ladies man. ... But {Jenkins}, an old Capitol Hill hand, told me that I should go out with him, that it might help me get a great summer job.

Significant pause. "I married him the next summer," she says, then laughs out loud.

"I guess that was the ultimate networking move."

Her drollness comes as a surprise. Long before that Ethiopian storm blew tragedy into her life, people felt there was a mystery about Alison Leland. The unflappability. The vaguely Egyptian features that seem off-center one moment and beautiful the next. The warmth that's cool around the edges.

Privacy, it seems, has always been important to Leland, who -- as an aspiring writer during her years at Spelman College in Atlanta -- was a stringer for Time magazine. She opted not to become a journalist when, she says now, "I realized nothing lets people see you more closely, more intimately, than your writing."

"Some people have painted her as aloof -- and I don't think she opens herself to everyone," says Patricia Johnson, who has known Leland since their first week at Spelman 14 years ago. Johnson's husband, Hugh, an official with the House Select Committee on Hunger, was one of eight other Americans killed with Mickey Leland last year.

"But people were always attracted to her -- she has this unique look, and a vivacious personality. And she's fun... . That's the mystery, the dichotomy between that sense of aloofness versus the outgoingness."

Adds Johnson: "And she always had the most impeccable men ... guys with that special something. I don't think anyone was surprised she married a congressman."

Nobody, maybe, except Alison Leland. "If ever a woman was swept off her feet, it was me," she says, a solitary tear glistening, diamondlike, in the corner of one eye.

"He was charming, engaging, impulsive, would send baskets of flowers... . I thought he would feel -- maybe, embarrassed, to be a congressman dating a law school student. But everyone he introduced me to would say, 'Oh, you're Alison -- you're at Georgetown, aren't you?' He was my biggest supporter."

Why did he pursue a young student in a city teeming with accomplished women?

"If he met me now, a woman with some experience, I could tell you why," she says slowly. "It's harder to say why he was struck by a 24-year-old with a knapsack full of law books ... I could flatter myself and say all these things he saw in me but ... if I had met him at an earlier time, he would have breezed right through me."

Maybe not. "It's true they met at the right time -- Mickey was ready to settle down, and having a family of his own had become important," recalls Los Angeles attorney Debra Martin Chase, 33, a pal of Mickey Leland's, who met Alison after the engagement.

"But Alison was the right person -- the fact that she was centered, with both feet on the ground. Mickey was impassioned, had this larger-than-life personality -- they balanced each other beautifully."

"She has a certain wit about her," adds Texas state Sen. Rodney Ellis, Mickey Leland's former administrative aide as well as his best friend. "For a change, Mickey generally didn't get the last word. Nor did he necessarily get the most memorable word."

Thinking about that period, Leland stares, unseeing, at a sign outlining hotel pool rules. Almost invisibly, she slides a tissue out of her purse, dabs, and puts it away. "You know, I didn't expect to fall in love and get married," she says. "I guess you always have to be ready for the unexpected."

The past year has been a feast of the unexpected, one that's provided little time for reflection. The day after her husband's funeral, reporters and local and national politicians began calling Leland, who was cloistered in her home, asking if she'd consider running for her husband's vacant congressional seat. She weighed it for several days, then declined. "I didn't feel there was any unfinished business on Mickey's part," she says now. "And it was important that Mickey's children have a good mother at the time they needed one."

Then came the fight that brought the grieving widow out of seclusion for good. Ellis, then a city councilman, proposed that Houston Intercontinental Airport be renamed for Mickey Leland.

The ensuing controversy -- council member Jim Westmoreland joked to a reporter that the new airport name might just as well be "Nigger International" -- energized Leland.

"For the first time, I sought out the press," she says. "I was so angry that people thought he didn't deserve to have his name on the airport -- they assailed his character."

The opposition, from regular citizens and several politicians, was based on Mickey's race, she says, and personality -- "He was a bit of a maverick who'd discussed foreign policy with Castro, who some people felt spent too much time traveling internationally... . Some people thought there should only be some commemoration in the black community... . Week by week, it went on -- I had this to deal with public debate in addition to dealing with the death of my husband."

After nearly a month, it was decided that the new, international terminal at Houston Intercontinental would be named Mickey Leland International Airlines Building. "I love it," says Leland, "that every time you arrive in Houston you see that big, red sign."

Two months later, on Jan. 13, the seven-months-pregnant Leland arrived in Atlanta to attend a dinner at which her late husband was being honored. She had been warned by her doctor -- who had scheduled an ultrasound for her next visit to learn why her patient had gained 15 pounds in one month -- that this should be her last trip until after her baby's birth.

Leland attended the event, and later went to dinner with a friend before retiring. She woke up in the middle of the night, her mattress a damp pool.

She knew that the hospital closest to her hotel was Grady Memorial, an indigent-care facility. That didn't worry Leland -- she felt certain that she wasn't in labor, even though her water had broken. She phoned Ellis, who had been invited to the same event, and by 4 a.m., the two of them were in a cab headed for Grady Memorial.

"It was like an 'I Love Lucy' episode," she says now. "We're rushing into the hospital, and I can hear the cabbie screaming, 'That woman owes me $5!' Then they did the ultrasound to find out how much fluid I'd lost."

Alison Leland stares straight at you.

"The doctor said, matter of factly, 'Your baby has lost a lot of fluid, but don't worry -- the other baby's fine.' I said, 'WHAT other baby?' The doctor said, 'Didn't your clinic tell you you're having twins?' They thought I was another poor, black woman who'd had no prenatal care. I said, 'I'm not having twins, I just saw my doctor yesterday... . Then the doctor showed me the ultrasound, and said, "See that right here? That's a baby. See that right there? That's another baby.' "

Even now, she shakes her head in disbelief.

"I sat there thinking, 'I am not in Atlanta. I am not having twins. I am not at Grady Hospital.' ... The twins were born around noon, Jan. 14."

Too quickly, she's solemn again. "But it was a good thing," she says. "I had really been dreading going to the same hospital where Jarrett had been born, where I would perceive that everybody had a husband but me... . And by the time the babies were born, there was this gathering of friends and politicians, Maynard Jackson, Andy Young... . All of it made a difficult time really fun."

Of course, much of what she feels isn't funny, or fun, at all. "I continue, at times, to be angry. Being left with a huge, inescapable responsibility as the single mother of three boys... . Sometimes I'm angry at {Mickey} -- I think, 'How could you have gone on this trip?' ... But it's hard to be angry at him because he also had everything to live for... . The only real blessing in this is that as difficult as it will be to raise three emotionally healthy sons, I came very close to not having the new babies at all."

Which brings her to, well -- if not to God, then to some feeling that there must be some greater meaning for the past year's excruciating turns. "You have to feel it's part of something large... . I hated it last August, when people said, 'This is all part of a plan.' To me, it seemed like a pretty painful plan. I hated when they said, 'In a few years, you'll understand.'

"I can't say after only a year that I do understand. But maybe I have more of a sense that as difficult and painful as the loss is, I'll be okay. And my sons will be okay."

Life continues. These days, Alison kills the bugs she once called for Mickey to dispatch. She almost never dissolves into tears when she drives Jarrett to preschool and sees all the parents, the daddies, kissing their kids goodbye. She and pal Patricia Johnson continue to use each other as grief-charting barometers, as they have since the day the crash claimed both their husbands' lives.

"It's been such a comfort," says Johnson, mother of a son, Stephen, 2 1/2 and a daughter, Dara, 17 months. Recently, during a conversation at their 10th reunion at Spelman, each woman was surprised to learn that the other was wondering if, just maybe, it was time to think about dating again.

"We looked at each other," says Johnson, "like, 'Am I ready to do this? To go on?' "

Like Johnson, Alison suspects that her late husband will be a tough act to follow.

"Not because of the accomplishments or re'sume'. But because" -- she pauses -- "I don't know if I'll ever meet anyone who'll love me in the same way. It's hard to imagine {marriage} happening again... . But my sons are so young... ."

The children -- whose college educations have been assured by a fundraiser held last November -- remain her most tangible anchor. "Part of the reason I've survived," she says, "is because of Jarrett. He gave me a sense of balance, of normalcy. Something was still the same. Every morning after the crash, he'd still come in the room and say, 'Mom, I want Lucky Charms for breakfast.' And I'd have to get them."

But even when she's saying these things, stuff that gnaws at your heart, Leland seems so -- together. Doesn't her elegant grip ever slip?

She laughs at the absurdity of this. "There are times when you can call the house," she says, "and hear Cameron, Austin, Jarrett and me -- all of us -- crying."

Silence. Then, unexpectedly, the voice returns -- softer, unprotected. "I miss him," she says. "I wonder what he would have thought about the release of Nelson Mandela ... how he'd feel about his new babies. There are times I forget he's gone -- I say, 'Oh, I have to tell Mickey that!' And I wish he were there to help get Jarrett to bed, when I have a problem with my car... . Before, he was just a phone call away. Always, a phone call away."

Another bright solitary tear has replaced the first.

"But you know, he doesn't feel far away," she goes on. "Not far away at all. I feel like the next time I see Mickey, I will be bubbling over to tell him all the things that have happened. And he'll just look at me and say, 'I know.' "